Saturday, November 13, 2021

One Thing


I'm looking for God. Where should I look? Well, it depends. There are a lot of choices. Jewish. Christian. Catholic. Lutheran. Evangelical. Baptist. 

It's all pretty confusing. Everyone I talk to is pretty sure their flavor is right. I want to make sense of it all, make sense of what God is trying to say to me. So I pick up the Bible. Old Testament. New Testament. King James. The Message. New International. New Revised Standard. New Living. Torah. Greek. Hebrew. Aramaic. Well, that doesn't help much, either. And among the confusion, these keep echoing:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.-Deut 6:4.

There is One God. One Faith, One Baptism. Eph 4: 5-6

I was reading this morning about Ilana Kurshan, a New York expat Jew living in Jerusalem, studying and teaching Torah, the Hebrew Bible. Now, as Midwestern Christians, we think of Jews as truncated Christians, a flawed ungrateful people, constantly forgetting about God's mercies and complaining while they trudged through the desert, chanting meaningless prayers and fingering the silly tassels on their robes. But one thing they do is study the Bible. In their own way, just like we do, trying to understand what it means and how to use ancient texts as guides to modern life.

"I believe," she says, "that Torah is divine. But for me this does not mean that God handed the entire Written and Oral Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. Rather, Sinai is the human record of an encounter with God"

This is where I stopped. I stopped reading and heard the echo of what I'd been taught. The Bible is inerrant. Its words are not to be altered, jot or tittle. Its words are our perfect guide to life and decision making. "All scripture is breathed by God"- 2Tim 3:16. Okay, I'll buy that, but which Scripture? The Protestant Bible? The Catholic? The Jewish? (Read it before you turn up your nose. It's pretty amazing)

Kurshan further says, "This record has had to be adapted to later generations, both to changing historical circumstances and to evolving theological understandings" These adaptations are called Midrash in Jewish tradition, commentary and exegis in Christian tradition. She goes on. "In high school, my students had surely learned, as I had, the difference between natural numbers and rational numbers. Natural numbers are integers: 1,2,3, etc. Rational numbers are the decimals in between, including 1.1, 1.12, 1.23378. Both sets are infinite, but only the rational numbers are infinitely dense, meaning there are an infinite number of rational numbers between any two natural numbers. In the Torah, there are in infinite number of midrashim, or reinterpretations, that are possible...Midrash is the creative commentary that reworks and retells the Bible so as to render it ever relevant."

Now, she and I are on the same road, using similar measures and signposts. The Bible as relevant. Yes, please. 

But there is danger up ahead. I mean, how many times can one thing be reinterpreted and still be faithful to the original? How long will it be until the original meaning has been divided out and left behind? God and I, after all, do not think alike. How can I trust either myself or anyone else to stay true to what God intended to say in the first place? After all, critics of the Bible are quick to point out the endless translations and interpretations. Who's right in dealing with God's word, when it's so critical that we deal rightly with it? "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." 2Tim 2:15. Believe me, I'm trying.

So is Kurshan. "The Talmud at the end of Sanhedrin 99a explains that even someone who challenges the divinity of any single verse in the Torah is denied a place in the world to come...There is a fine line, I recognize, between extolling the creative possibilities of midrash and declaring the Torah can say anything we want it to."

So that's it. The Bible needs interpretation if it's to be useful, but that very interpretation can take us far away from what God intended. And we all agree on that. Jew. Christian. Catholic. Protestant. We have one goal. But how to reach it? By looking beyond the word. Looking to God-infinitely loving, perfectly righteous, endlessly holy. That, at least, we can all agree on. 

And, actually, we're dealing with one text. The Old Testament as given to the Jews and its completion in the New Testament. One God. One Word, with the epistles as the first commentators. What about Jesus, you ask?  He's already answered that. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them." - Matt 15-17. 

Jesus gave us the example. The Bible is meant for us to use. We are not meant to worship the word. We are meant to worship God. In interpretation, God is our backstop. We cannot go beyond Who He is. 

There is one God. There is one Word. There is one Truth. Our job is not to find what separates us and so elevate ourselves, but what unites us before that one God. To sift together through what He gave us in both word and tradition to find out how to live to honor Him and each other. 

This text was given by God into stumbling human hands. To Moses. To prophets. To apostles. It is a "human record of an encounter with God." And, if we use it right, the encounter continues. 

Lord God, bring me to your the foot of your mountain and let me hear you speak. 

Monday, October 11, 2021

Buds and Fresh Breezes


The wind is blowing. Everything around me moves with it, but subtle changes have happened when I wasn't looking. Flowers faded. Nests emptied. Leaves brittled so that now, rather than rustling, they rattle. Summer has, without permission, drifted from what is to what has been, cramming itself into what must be my almost-full bag of  THE PAST. 

It's big, that bag, and getting bigger, full to almost bursting with first my own youth, then my children's, with the grandchildren not far behind. It holds all of our early missteps, dreams, and triumphs. It hides our disappointments and shames, too. Heavy now. Too heavy to carry, but still draggable and by now a familiar companion. 

I realized this morning that the bag of  THE PAST holds not only my youth but all my memories of Dave. That's new. It took a long time for him to climb in there, and took a lot of sad work, too, but there's more. Italy has migrated there, too, taking with it all the spontaneous music and unapologetic beauty of Florence. They've been displaced as memory always is by newer revelations and more recent days, mine accompanied these days by surf and seagulls. 
They just keep coming, the days, insisting on new sunrises and fresh breezes. More days than I'd expected, but I can't help but relish them, trying to store up the feel of them in case they are the last. 

Maybe the full bag is a blessing after all, even while it sometimes feels a burden. Not everyone's bag carries as much, nor are they all so full of so much that was so good. It may be true that summer is waning in more ways than one, but as I look around I find new buds next to almost-spent roses. Life asserting itself. There may even be enough time to see them open. 

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Black Like Her


I don't ever think about being white. Maybe that's the difference. I think about wrinkles or spots, about hair gone silver or lips gone thin and pinched, but never about being white. It's just not a thing. It doesn't affect what I do. Ever. It's just there. Nothing to be changed or even noted. A 70-year-old fact.

My husband said he had at least one black and several American Indian forebears somewhere in his genealogic tree a number of generations ago, but our son emerged blond and blue-eyed. No wide nostrils or high cheekbones. I never even thought of it, didn't consider for a second he could turn out otherwise.

But skin color, as it turns out, matters. Not because it changes a person's basic composition or worth, but maybe because it's so, well, so there.

I've thought a lot about how I look over the years. Green eyes, chestnut brown hair, smooth skin in fortunate times, bumps and blemishes in others. Long legs. Small breasts. Fingers that span eight piano keys and feet misshapen by bunions. But nothing so elemental as skin color. I didn't think of that. I don't think of wearing something that I can't change or hide, that covered me head to toe. Nothing that labeled or disgusted or frightened.

And here's the irony. As much as I tried to make myself beautiful from time to time, the most beautiful woman I ever saw had something I could never have. The most beautiful woman I ever saw was black. Not politely coffee or nut brown, but black. Senegal black. Slave black.

 I saw her only once, and stripped to the waist in a church bathroom in a homeless shelter on a morning when I'd been frying pounds of bacon in the kitchen, but paused to call everyone to breakfast.

I gasped to see her. She was astoundingly female. Round and generous everywhere that spoke of women--shoulder, hip, breast. Her skin gleamed, flawless and shining. She paused to look up, washcloth in mid-stroke over the back of her neck, but her head never turned. I saw her eyes in the mirror then, more slate than brown and just as flat and hard. She had no idea.

What I wouldn't have given for that beauty, that voluptuous depth. I would have traded my fashionable thinness, my obvious collarbone, my silly pink nipples for her charcoal and mahogany in a second. She looked like a woman. Next to her, I looked like a washed-out wannabe. I carried her image with me for awhile but later, shrugged off my envy and went back to my life, failing to notice again my white, almost completely ignorant of her black.

The closest I ever came to any kind of understanding was in Italy, where the locals knew me as Eastern European  by a look, where I was identified and catalogued by a glance. There, the way I looked determined how I would be treated--like a tourist--and how I was expected to act: to speak English, to ask simple, polite questions, to tip well. My foreigness was with me wherever I went. 

Maybe blackness is sort of like that kind of foreigness. Are we all basically the same? Sure we are. But for some, for those who can be categorized by a glance before anyone knows anything about their dreams or character, we automatically create distance. In that gap, wariness can become mistrust and mistrust breed marginalization. It changes the world. It changes us.

Even though I still don't think about being white, I do think about that beautiful black woman in the church bathroom. I still wish for her color and voluptuousness. I want to tell her how she looked to me, but can't think of how it could be done without sounding condescending. I don't like a world that won't let me do that.


Image: copyright Saatchi Art

Sunday, July 4, 2021

The First Freedom

Freedom. This country has stood for freedom since it began. Even the Statue of Liberty declares it: Bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to break free. 

Human beings, by their very nature, know they are destined to be free. It's the way we were made to function. But, today of all days, it's important to remember that we didn't invent freedom. Freedom isn't the property of the United States of America. We didn't wire people to need it, soldiers to fight for it, or provide anything new that hadn't existed before.

In fact, the first freedom had nothing to do with a country's rebellion against a king. Nor did it have to do with the abolition of slavery or with what we are allowed to talk publicly about, or with the ability to go to church anywhere we want. It had nothing to do with a constitution or a set of laws, ours or any other. 

Freedom is much older than that. The first freedom was bestowed by God.

The first freedom was free will. 

Yup. When God made men, He said, "Oh, by the way, I'm in charge of everything, and my plan will take place because I AM, but you get to decide what you're going to do regarding me. You get to listen to me or ignore me. You get to follow me or walk away. It's up to you. You're free."

And we know it. It's what we fight for. It's what some people have died for. 

We get confused about this sometimes and think the United States of America is special. One nation under God. But we forget that every nation is under God. And every nation that fights for the liberties bestowed on men by God is His. 

Were we one of those? Yes. Are we still? That might be up for debate, but the idea of freedom hasn't changed. A people who fights for personal freedoms does so because they were first given permission by God to have them. 

No, those freedoms are not absolute. They are not to be wanton. They are not to be random. We are meant to be governed by just laws made by honorable men, and that is worth remembering, too. But, as we celebrate the Fourth of July, let's remember that the United States of America is one nation among many acting out God-given freedom as best it can, that there is always more work to be done, and that there will always be a struggle somewhere.

America. One nation exercising God-given free will, joining all other nations doing the same. All the people of the world recognizing the good and noble in one another. Better together.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Sparrows and Lilies


Spring mornings at the farm were blue and white, colored by the sky, hard and square-edged. The memory of winter lingered long there. Birds hid in the woods. The sky commanded all. Horizon spread side to big side. Morning sun declared reign over bested hills. Red, pink, orange, yellow in response to cloud and temperature, but feeling more like a declaration from God that He’d done it again, kept the world rolling another day. Magnificent, out of any human control.

Even Florence’s stone streets were softer than the farm’s eventual demands. Its welcomes evaporated, its embrace withdrew. I am too big for you, it told me every day. I shrank from its stern declaration, tried unsuccessfully to soften its edges with dahlias, asparagus, and willows in flowerbeds appropriated from random underbrush, to temper its warnings with cats and grazing goats, to test its threats with housefuls of guests who could still see welcome where I no longer could.

The farm shut its doors to me, crowded me out with overgrown fields and a silting well, too much lawn, too much house, and echoes. Too many echoes.

The deed said the farm belonged to me, house and land, but the deed lied. It belonged to Dave still and dismissed my supposed authority with a perfunctory wave. No, it said. You hold no sway here. You can’t sign enough documents or plant enough flowers, or hire enough contractors to change that.

It was good practice, though, because this place is different. Green and willing, with rounded edges and birds that sing on garden chairs and front lawns, with neighbors that laugh and invite, with children and grandchildren within arm’s reach, lacking facile criticism and second guesses.

God reigns here, too, but He shares His sovereignty with me, gives me liberty to spread out and imagine. He commanded me here, mechanically propped up a failing body to possess it, said Go, and made me to live against my will. God is pulling out pieces of my past like Jenga blocks and I can’t help Him because He knows which ones will make the pile fall and I don’t. He’s driving and I’m along for the ride. I didn’t decide to live. I didn’t decide to move. I didn’t choose this place or these people. It’s not my life. It’s His.

Across the street, two squirrels chase each other around tree trunks. Not finding food, not building a nest, not caring for babies. Just running for the joy of it. God expects no more from them but to love their life. Like sparrows and lilies. Maybe even like me.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021


 A real estate agent will tell you that they can sell you a house, but it's not true. You don't choose a house. The house chooses you, being older and having had the persistence to stay put, whereas you found it necessary to abandon one place for another.

Then, once having chosen, the house reveals its secrets one by one, uncovering a stubborn drain here or a squeaky door there. In those first weeks, bricks, plumbing, concrete, and roof all announced their immediate need and I tried to prove my faithfulness in meeting them. 

A house saves its  best surprises, though, for its living parts. Within weeks of signing the papers, my house buried its life, shrinking beneath frost and snow, sleeping for five frigid months, taunting, hiding behind lowered lashes. Spring has come, though, and now that it has, the house yawns, stretches out its arms, and lets it fingers unfold in greeting, almost before I can see. 

 Crocuses first, purple and striped. Then the lush, but niggardly, green of a daffodil clump that saw fit to yield only one flower. The clematis sprouted only halfway up. The tree next to the arbor that won't tell yet whether leaf or flower will come first. Tulips, roses, raspberries, strawberries, all unwinding green from some inner storehouse of life, all according to their own predetermined recipe. 

This is the welcome that didn't come in the first week or month, that waited until I'd tested worthy. This is God's first breath saying, Yes. You are welcome here. Look what I've saved for you. This is only the beginning.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Hello, me. Nice to Meet You


Today is the last day of Indian Summer. Tomorrow, the cold will blow in and stay for four or five months. So I went for a walk. The sky is blue, the sun warm, and the colors of the autumn trees glowing. And I find myself in the most unexpected place: home. 

I shouldn't be surprised. During my entire 50-year adulthood, I have never chosen my own place to live. Not once. Until now. For a long time, I called no place home. There were places I lived happily, some very good places, and people I loved there, and things I learned. But here, this place, this house--it feels like a prolonged hug. Warm, familiar, like I'm tucking myself into the last void in the puzzle. A perfect fit. 

So I walked by the river today and along the way found a store. For the first time since I was  child, I find myself in a real neighborhood rather than a distant suburb or on a country lane framed by punishing hills. But there it was, a real store well within the reach of a comfortable stroll. So I tested it and bought an egg salad sandwich. That's always the test, after all. It passed. The bread was fresh and made with unbleached flour, mayo-ey eggs squeezed out the sides, and the lettuce still had a satisfying crunch at 2 in the afternoon. 

 I sat by the riverside to eat, then, on the way home, reveled in manageable, gravel-less sidewalks, and actual blocks with crosswalks and street signs that announce your arrival.

That's my car in the driveway. Yes, I have a driveway, too, and rather than a metal shed, an actual garage with an opener. I have garbage pickup and, finally, finally, a window on the second floor. I'm there now, looking out and watching a world that's at last the right size. The pine tree in the front yard is swaying in the wind and down below, right under where I'm sitting, October roses resolutely bloom.

It's said that living is like walking a road. If it is, then I've come full circle only to find myself at the end. Who would have imagined? Oh yes. Of course. Thank you, God.